Special technologies to reduce the amount of carbon already present in the air may soon be necessary to achieve the goal of stopping global climate catastrophe.
Global Thermostat, a startup claiming to have the largest facility for commercial “direct air capture”, is proof technological solutions can help us avoid the worst consequences of climate change.
But currently, capturing carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air is a niche industry that needs to grow radically, if it is to have any impact on the fight against climate change.
How can we capture carbon dioxide?
One way is direct air capture. It is a process by which carbon dioxide is taken from the ambient air using chemical processes along with physical pumping.
The scrubbed CO2 is then stored underground or turned into products. The new technology that removes excess carbon directly from the atmosphere is different from traditional carbon capture. It is used to capture emissions directly from the source like power plants or industrial facilities.
The basic process underlying direct air capture is not new, submarines and space shuttles both use chemical scrubbers to capture CO2 and make the air safe for breathing.
Currently, Global Thermostat uses giant fans to extract carbon dioxide from the air into chambers. These chambers have the ability to soak CO2. Their facility is located on the outskirts of Huntsville city in the US state of Alabama.
According to a report by Fast Company, the equipment can capture 4,000 tons of CO2 every year, which is equivalent to the pollution emitted by 870 cars.
Scientists in Europe from the Paul Scherrer Institute (PSI) and ETH Zurich have conducted their own independent research. They are investigating the extent of direct capture of CO2 from ambient air to help effectively remove greenhouse gases.
The findings were extremely promising and the scientists studied a total of five different configurations for capturing CO2 from eight different locations around the world: Chile, Greece, Jordan, Mexico, Spain, Iceland, Norway, and Switzerland. Researchers found that 97 percent of the emissions released could be captured with the new technology.
But the impressive findings have a caveat, Tom Terlouw, who conducts research at PSI's Laboratory for Energy Systems Analysis and is the lead author of the study. “The use of this technology only makes sense if these emissions are significantly lower than the amounts of CO2 it helps to store,” said Terlouw.
The 3 percent emissions that are not going to be captured even with a global adoption would still continue to contribute to global warming.
Limitations and future
The findings are in line with other researchers from the US who have also criticized the technology. They say sucking carbon dioxide sounds great in theory but it is unproven at a large scale.
These researchers have even said companies can use such technology as an excuse to avoid cutting their emissions entirely, which completely defeats the purpose of the giant fans sucking in CO2.
Amid the dire warnings from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report earlier this year, the climate body suggested in its report that some kind of technological means is necessary for “negative emissions.”
The global average temperature has already risen by 1 degree Celsius and this is already causing catastrophic hurricanes, floods and droughts throughout the world.
According to a BBC report, Ajay Gambhir, senior researcher at the Imperial College Grantham Institute for Climate Change, said, “The number of things that would have to happen without direct air capture are so stretching and multiple it's highly unlikely we can meet the Paris Agreements without it.”
He added, in the age of rising emissions, it would be less likely to meet the climate target of 1.5 Celsius without interventions like direct air capture.
For this ambitious direct air capture technology to work, governments must provide support to the industry on a larger scale, in order to effectively reduce and lead to negative emissions.
Air carbon capture technology is only at a nascent stage, much like renewable power once was. Governments the world over spent billions of dollars on R&D, and incentives, grants, and subsidies for wider adoption of renewable energy.
The same needs to happen to air capture facilities if they are to be a viable option in the fight against climate change.
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